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The Press is Fascinated by Perelman

The Press is Fascinated by Perelman

By Fernando Q. Gouvêa

Press coverage of the Fields Medals focused almost exclusively on Grisha Perelman, the Poincaré Conjecture, and the fact that Perelman turned down the prize and may, speculates the press, turn down the Clay Institute's million dollar prize when and if it is offered. Some of the news items never even mentioned the other three Fields medalists. The AP headline is fairly typical: "Russian recluse snubs academic world, rejecting math's equivalent of Nobel Prize" (AP Worldstream, August 23, 2006). The Sunday Telegraph, on August 20, ran an article that described Perelman as "bonkers."

At the other extreme, Evgeny Morozov in an August 31 op-ed article in the International Herald Tribune, described Perelman's fame as "The triumph of the nerd," and hailed Perelman for having concentrated on science, not worrying about funding, politics, or writing op-ed pieces for newspapers. "Perelman has sent a particularly important message to aspiring scientists," Morozov says, science is still a level playing field. No matter what institution you are based at, no matter how much you publish, and no matter what your peers think, it all boils down to hard work and a bit of genius. He ends his article by saying that "If the Clay Institute wants to reinvigorate general interest in science, then it should publicly burn Perelman's prize money. After all, that's what a true Dostoevskian character like Perelman would do with the money anyway."

An editorial in The Daily Texan said that "In a world where folks are always looking to sell themselves, Perelman's gesture is powerful. It's old-school, reclusive genius at its finest." Maybe so, but the refusal has probably resulted in greater fame for Perelman than he would have otherwise had.

A response to the exclusive focus on Perelman appeared a couple of weeks later, again in the International Herald Tribune: "Yes, but what about the other math geniuses?", by Malindi Corbel. Agence France-Presse gave it a try with "Number cruncher Tao waves maths flag for Australia," but describing Terence Tao as a "number cruncher" seems quite unfair, and Werner and Okounkov were not mentioned at all. The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled their story "3 Professors Win Elite Math Medals," the point being that Perelman, having refused the medal, is not one of the winners. Even so, the article, which is five paragraphs long, spends two paragraphs discussing Perelman's refusal.

The complicated story of Perelman's proof and its relation to the work of other mathematicians, discussed in our September issue, continued to attract attention and discussion. Marcus du Sautoy, writing in The New Scientist on August 26, used it as an opportunity to discuss the complex nature of proof and the difficulty of deciding who the actual prover was. The New York Times ran a notable article by Dennis Overbye, "An Elusive Proof and Its Elusive Prover" (August 15, 2006). The illustrations accompanying the article were particularly nice, giving the reader a visual demonstration of what the Ricci flow does. The New Yorker ran a long article by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber, "Manifold Destiny," in its August 28 issue. The article is very sympathetic to Perelman and critical of Shing-Tung Yau and his promotion of the work of Huai-Dong and Xi-Ping Zhu, the two Chinese mathematicians who published their own account of the proof. So much so, in fact, that Yau charged the magazine with defamation.

If nothing else, the stream of news surrounding Perelman and the Fields Medals has called attention to the complex politics of the mathematical community, and has played to the media's predilections. As seen by the media, the story is about a lone genius with ascetic tendencies, an "empire builder" who wants at least part of the credit, money offered and money turned down. Who can resist that?

News Date: 
Friday, October 27, 2006